Top 10 Green Theme Stories of 2010

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Time for my list of the year’s top stories about sustainability news in government, business and beyond. Notice the irrelevance of the United States in positive developments.

1. China goes big time green with new Five Year Plan

You may know that China has overtaken the US, EU nations and other countries in production of solar and wind renewable energy technologies; but may not have heard that China,  which will use 15% renewables by 2020, is committed to greening far more than its energy (note: the US has no goal for renewable energy).

China’s Five Year Plan for 2011-2015 demonstrates that it is serious about tackling its rampant air and water pollution. This recently announced plan also shows that China will be designing scaleable new technologies and approaches for everything from greener urban development to more fuel efficient vehicles, including nationally subsidized electric cars. 

Nowhere was this more evident than at the Shanghai 2010 World Expo, a six-month affair that I attended at its close in October (see photo above). Climate change, sustainability, environmental management and the role of citizens in reducing their impact were major themes in the China Pavilion and in other theme pavilions. The Shanghai Expo featured some of the most creative and engaging exhibits that I have seen on climate change, green technology, waste reduction, urban planning, and air and water pollution.

2. India’s GDP will factor in environmental damages by 2015

Now that more than 30 nations have agreed to some kind of price on carbon emissions, India declared in November that it will go a step further. India said within five years it will factor in environmental damages into its Gross Domestic Product, or GDP. In other words, if the country now has an annual GDP of 8 percent that could be adjusted a few percentages points lower once the damages to air, water and species are analyzed and calculated in the equation. Under such “full-cost accounting,” intensified green economic development would likely become a substantially larger component of the GDP. 

3. US Congress fails to pass climate change legislation
(again)

Climate change legislation in 2010 appeared to be dead in the water after passing in the U.S. House in 2009. The Obama Administration is likely to try to enforce greenhouse gas emission reductions using Executive Order, mainly through the Environmental Protection Agency. Lawmakers hunker waiting in revolt.

4. It’s happening: Climate change related flooding in Pakistan, fires engulfing Russia, etc.

Pakistan experienced some of the worst rain and flooding in its recorded history, with the Indus River flooding its banks and occupying more than 30 times its usual width, which covered one-fifth of the country. Russia in 2010 experienced record high temperatures and rampant drought and extreme temperature-related fires, impacting national food crops, health in major cities including Moscow, and commercial aviation. More than 15,000 were likely killed by the Russian 2010 heat wave, cutting more than $15 billion from its GDP. The year 2010, meanwhile, is likely to finish as the planet’s warmest year ever recorded since record keeping began in the late 1800s.

5. Gulf Oil Spill demonstrates future dangers of ever-riskier drilling

The BP Gulf Horizon disaster, the largest US oil “spill” in history (it was more of an uncontrolled gusher than a spill), caught BP, the federal government and the nation at large way off guard. I blogged about the disaster’s potential in April, when estimates of damage were laughingly underplayed by BP through the US government. Who can forget the weird summer with that underwater camera video spewing daily before our eyes? Deep water drilling is not for the timid, especially as such operations will more frequently encounter highly volatile methane gases

6. New electric vehicles released by Chevy and Nissan

Both Chevy and Nissan came out in 2010 with electric cars (though only Nissan’s Leaf is truly an all-electric car.) Now we just have to figure out how to get people to realize that electric cars are a small sliver of a solution. They’re not even part of a solution if people end up feeling justified in driving more and continuing the auto-dominant lifestyle that presents so many other challenges: exurban sprawl; life-cycle energy; peaking oil (see #7) for plastics, asphalt and lubrication; waste and resource impacts; biodiversity and agricultural land destruction; personal health and community societal damages.

7. Oil prices near $100 a barrel. Again.

Oil prices per barrel reached over $91 late this month. The last time oil was at such a price in 2008, the Great Recession was just beginning to wrap its talons around the globe. Now industry analysts see oil prices moving to $100-120 per barrel in 2011. Others, including the US Department of Defense and a UK energy and aviation industry consortium have forecast that the real oil crunch will come in 2014-2015 as global supplies “peak,” “plateau,” “top off,” or “poop out,” depending on who you are reading or talking to. The International Energy Agency even came out with a report in 2010 stating that global oil supplies peaked in 2006. Expect much higher prices for gasoline and higher prices for food and transportation (especially airline flights).  

8. Post Carbon Reader lays out a plan for what’s next

The Post Carbon Institute tapped 29 of its fellows, including yours truly, to write chapters about the major climate, ecological and economic problems faced by the world in 2010. Chapters covered the inter-related challenges of climate change, resource and water scarcity, dwindling “easy” energy supplies, food security, waste, biodiversity, buildings, “growth” economics, cities and local government, exurban sprawl, human health and psychology, education, societal resilience, population and transportation.

Unlike other books that may be easily filed under “Gloom and Doom,” authors in the Post Carbon Reader including Richard Heinberg, Bill McKibben, Erika Allen, David Orr, Stephanie Mills, Wes Jackson, and Sandra Postel
made sure to explore positive paths laden with solution examples.

As Lester R. Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute (and founder of the Worldwatch Institute) put it, “The Post Carbon Reader is an invaluable primer, resource and textbook. This is what you need to know, period.”  Since its release eight weeks ago, the book is in its second printing from Watershed Media/ University of California Press.

9. Cancun Accord a small step forward

At the Cancun, Mexico, United Nations conference on climate change, representatives from 192 countries pledged to help developing nations mitigate and adapt to climate change with a $100 billion fund announced for 2020. The United Nations and host country Mexico emerged as successful in bringing together the negotiations. Unlike the Copenhagen gathering, Cancun did not attract heads of state. But maybe that’s precisely why it was considered more successful than Copenhagen’s climate conference.

10. ICLEI announces STAR pilot sustainability program for communities

ICLEI USA, part of an international organization that works with cities and counties on sustainability programs, announced in November a 2012 pilot program called the STAR Community Index. The membership local government advocacy organization, which had promoted its STAR Index since 2007-2008 as coming out in 2010, did release 81 sustainability goals and 10 guiding principles for STAR.

ICLEI has made it clear that STAR is a sustainability rating system for communities, not a ranking system. Its delay for releasing the STAR rating system, which it sees as a US Green Building Council LEED-like rating for communities (USGBC is a partner for STAR, along with the National League of Cities and the Center for American Progress), has been attributed to management volatility as well as the incredibly ambitious scope of STAR.

In addition to ranking green buildings, infrastructure and other environmental, quality of life and energy attributes, ICLEI plans on using STAR to measure and rate city or community “poverty prevention and alleviation,” “social cohesion,” “government transparency,”  “industry sector development and revitalization,” “employment opportunity,” “financial literacy,” “arts and culture” and dozens of other categories.

Warren Karlenzig is president of Common Current. He is a fellow at the
Post-Carbon Institute, strategic adviser to the Institute for Strategic Resilience and co-author of
a forthcoming United Nations manual on global sustainable city planning and management. 
 

3.

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Top Ten Sustainability Stories of the Decade


It’s the end of the decade 2000-2009, and there has been
progress as well as potential disaster for sustainability. In chronological
order, I’ve chosen these ten stories to show a range of relevant global and national
issues and events on climate, business, government, media, design, technology,
language and demographics. Some of the entries are pegged to an exact date, while
others cover a time period.

The first entry, climate change is impacting all aspects of
sustainability thought, planning and action.

1.       Terror
of the Decade: Global Climate Change Confirmed by…Climate, IPCC, Heads of State

Time Period: 2000-2009

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The evidence is overwhelmingly clear that we humans are
changing the earth’s climate in ways in which millions are beginning to regret.
Ten of the hottest years on record globally have been recorded in the ten years
since
1997. Some of the impacts: rising overall sea levels from melting polar ice are
already damaging low-lying areas in Bangladesh, India, Egypt and China, and
threatening the very existence of island nations. More intense hurricanes (Katrina
killed more than 1,300 in 2006
and helped shut down the oil and gas refining sector in the Gulf Coast);
droughts, heat (the Europe heat event of 2003 caused more than 35,000 deaths) and wildfires (Australia’s Melbourne-area deadly firestorm of 2009 exploded
during one of the hottest periods ever recorded Down under, dramatizing the
ravishes of an ongoing 8-year drought).

So what if these are chance events, unrelated to man’s
impact on the globe’s climate? That’s a fair question and an outside
possibility, but odds are that these extreme events were at least partially due
to the rising global concentration of CO2, which is now at about 390 parts per
million (ppm), up from 315 ppm in the late 1950s. The real threat is that things will get much
worse (heat waves, droughts, floods, depletion of glaciers and water supplies,
agriculture and fisheries disruption) if our global greenhouse gases continue
to increase. Human-based greenhouse gas emissions increased 70% between 1970
and 2004, according to the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change, also known
as the IPCC). The watershed IPCC Fourth Assessment Report of 2007 developed by 2,500 of the world’s leading climate
scientists, put the likelihood at more than 90 percent that the global
temperature increase of .74 Celsius between 1906 and 2005 has been caused by
human greenhouse gas emissions. How often have 2,500 scientists agreed on
anything? The landmark 2007 “Stern Review on the Economic of Climate Change,” by former World Bank chief economist Nicholas Stern,
estimates that global climate change could negatively impact the world
economy annually at 5-20 percent Gross Domestic Product, while Stern estimated
that the annual costs of reducing the risks of global climate
change are estimated to be about 1 percent of world GDP.

Unfortunately, the UN COP-15 conference in Copenhagen ended with a whimper, producing only a non-binding agreement
to limit global temperature increases to 2 degrees Celsius above
pre-industrialized temperature levels. Follow-up actions, including a potential binding
treaty, will set the agenda for the next decade and beyond.  

2.      
Word: Sustainability

Time
Period: 2000-2009

 

The use of the term
“sustainability” itself has been a major surprise this past decade. In 2000,
only a few policy wonks and academics used the word, traditionally defined as meeting
present needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet
their needs.”
Now the
public (maybe even more than the media) is gleaning that “sustainability”
differs considerably from “environmentalism” as it is based on planning for an
uncertain future based on economics, culture, resources and technology.

As the current decade closes many are searching for a
term that could replace “sustainability,” claimed to be almost meaningless now
because it has been hijacked by greenwashing corporate marketing campaigns (I
bet some such ads pop up next to this post somewhere in future digital
ether!). “Resilience” is currently gaining  traction, but we’ll perhaps need another decade to see if the “s-word” gets dethroned.

3.       Standards:
LEED Green Buildings

Date: March 2000

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The US Green Building Council
formally released its Leadership in Energy and Environment Design building standards
(LEED)
full Green Building Rating system 2.0 in March 2000. The impact on the nation’s
building and construction industry over the next ten years has been wildly
popular and transformational on numerous levels. The number of LEED-certified
or registered buildings increased from 10,000 in 2007 to 20,000 by the
beginning of 2009
. Providing a system-based measurable standard of what “green” means is useful
for policy, benchmarking and new market development. The LEED ratings, for instance,  were
integral to my ability to develop an overall sustainability benchmarking of US
cities starting in 2005 (which can found in my book How Green is Your City?). Critics
have assailed LEED
for providing standards in certification that do not reflect
actual performance in energy efficiency. Nevertheless, LEED standards, are now being positioned for international
markets (in competition with Europe’s BREE-AM and China’s
emerging Three Star standard), and they continue to be a powerful
teaching tool, not to mention an industry onto themselves. Today’s savvy urban
planner, construction manager or architect must possess the LEED-AP,
“Accredited Professional” tagline on their business card. In addition to new
commercial building construction, LEED is now being applied to homes, existing
buildings, schools, neighborhoods and may even extend to cities, under the LEED for
Neighborhood Development
standard
that was launched in 2009.

The next challenges for green building standards will be
rating life-cycle impacts (carbon, water, scarce resources) of construction processes and material, while integrating measures of building performance–how much buildings actually save energy or water once they are occupied.

4.       Product:
The Toyota Prius

Date: July 2000

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Back in the 1990s, Toyota
Motor Corporation CEO Katsuaki Watanbe helped birth the “G-21,” later known as
the Prius, when he decided that middle-class consumers wanted a car that used
new motor innovations to be fuel-efficient. The Prius hybrid gas-electric car
was introduced in the United States in July 2000. It quickly became a Hollywood status symbol after Leonardo DiCaprio bought one
in 2001, and he and other stars such as Harrison Ford and Calista Flockhart
(remember her?) began showing up at the 2003 Oscar ceremonies not in
chauffeured limos, but behind the wheel or driven in their own Priuses. By the
decade’s peak sales year of 2007, the Toyota Prius had sold 180,000 units in the
United States. These cars get 40-50 miles per gallon but
perhaps even more importantly provide a meter showing real-time and historic
fuel efficiency; self-monitoring feedback is one of the greatest ways of
changing behavior to reduce energy use.

Plug-in electric models of the Prius will begin to be released on  test basis in
2010
, in a challenge to the introduction of GM’s Chevy Volt. Plug-ins may
create fuel efficiencies that can truly reduce carbon emissions and oil
dependency, getting from 51 to 100+ miles per gallon. One problem with electric
cars or plug-in hybrid electrics is that their true sustainability impact depends on exactly
how the electricity they use is produced at the power plant: renewables or
dirty coal? In parts of the United States that continue to burn large amounts
of coal to generate electricity (Southeast, lower Midwest and Plains states),
driving an electric car does little or nothing to reduce a person’s overall
carbon footprint when compared to gas-burning cars. When you consider cars and
health, social, land use and material life-cycle impacts, driving less is better for people’s
fitness
, the
environment and the planet.

5.       Corporate
Story. Wal-Mart Embarks on a “Green” Path

Time
Period: 2004-2005

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I must admit, I was a skeptic when I first heard of
Wal-Mart’s plan to go green in 2004 from Jib Ellison, founder of Blue Skye
Consulting
, one
of the major collaborative forces behind Wal-Mart’s transformation. Wal-Mart,
at that point the largest company in the world (it’s now number 3), had
been known for its ruthless management style, questionable labor practices, and
for helping put locally owned stores in towns across the country out of
business. Ellison had met with Wal-Mart’s then-CEO Lee Scott at the behest of
Conservation International’s CEO Peter Seligman, and
Scott decided upon a serious campaign to make the company more resource and
energy efficient. Since that meeting, the company has been streamlining its
transportation fleet, buildings and some products to be less environmentally
destructive. The company is now targeting its supply chain, which is primarily
in China, in a loosely defined, greening protocol.

The impact of Wal-Mart going green helped awaken the
nation’s business leaders to the potential of making their own operations and
supply chains energy and resource efficient, (just sounds like good business to me). Wal-Mart announced earlier in 2009 that it would require
manufacturers to calculate and disclose the full environmental costs of
ingredients and processes on product labels sometime in the next five years.
Suppliers, formerly isolated or little regulated, are now assessing their
operations in a way they never would have without the threat of greater
scrutiny from their biggest customer.

6.      
Regulations: California’s Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006
(AB 32)

Time
Period: 2005-2006

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When California Governor Arnold
Schwarzenegger made the declaration in June 2005 that, “I say the debate is
over (on climate change),” 
many were still heatedly arguing that climate change needed more studies before
action was taken. The Governor and the California Legislature pressed ahead in
2006 to sign the nation’s first major climate change mitigation legislation,
known as AB 32 . Now AB 32 will soon be implemented across industries and even in local
communities through follow-up legislation such as the regulation known
as SB 375, the nation’s first statewide
regulatory attempt to limit suburban and exurban sprawl. Meanwhile, opponents
of AB 32, are gearing up for 2010 gubernatorial elections, claiming AB 32 will
cost the state $143 billion in auction taxes alone. Whatever happens
next, California is being looked on by the Obama Administration and world
leaders as the pace setter in climate change mitigation with its aggressive automotive
fuel standards
,
green building standards and AB 32′s goal of reducing
greenhouse gases 80% over 1990 levels by 2050.

7.       Film: An Inconvenient Truth

Date: May, 2006

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Released in Summer 2006 at the Sundance Film Festival, An Inconvenient Truth made the debate on
climate change public. The documentary, which was actually just a series of
lectures and slideshows that former Vice President Al Gore was giving around
the world, hit a nerve. Despite “action scenes” that consisted of Gore either
1.) riding up elevators or 2.) riding down escalators, the film created a major
public buzz and introduced the subject of climate change to popular culture. An
Inconvenient Truth
received an Academy Award in 2007 for Best Documentary
and went on to set records for box office revenues in its category. An Inconvenient Truth offered very few
solutions, suggesting compact fluorescent bulbs and little more. This critical
learning opportunity was finally addressed when Gore released a follow-up book
in 2009, A Plan to Solve the Climate
Crisis
.

8.       Book:
The Omnivore’s Dilemma

Date:
May, 2006

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Michael Pollan’s 2006 book The Omnivore’s Dilemma made clear the benefits of sustainable
agriculture and food production, and even foraging or killing your own food:
it’s healthier for people, animals, farmers, the land and nature. The ongoing
popularity of this book has helped create a demand for sustainably raised food
that has out-paced supply. The Omnivore’s
Dilemma
patiently outlined what is wrong with industrial agriculture and
livestock production, where highly subsidized ingredients such as high fructose
corn syrup have become a surplus commodity to be forced upon products or
animals in order to reduce the price of ingredients, without regard to health
(diabetes, reduced nutrition). I had the good fortune of meeting Angelo Garro,
the Italian forager, now based in Northern California who was profiled in the
last half of the book. As we traded notes on wild huckleberry picking one
afternoon at a friend’s orchard party, he was pulling off some strips of meat from a boiled
carcass. When the sun went down most were unknowingly eating a jack rabbit that
Angelo had shot in the orchard a few hours before–it had made its way into a
delicious bolognese pasta sauce.

9.       Design:
Masdar City, First Planned Net-Zero Carbon City

Time Period: 2006-2017

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Masdar will be a 50,000-person city based on applied sustainability
research and technology that is being developed in Abu Dhabi, United
Arab Emirates. While other cities have been planned to be net-zero carbon
(Dongtan, China, which is not being developed because of local corruption and
other issues), Masdar
has been one of the few net-zeros that appear to be proceeding as planned. With
financial partners Credit Suisse, Siemens and General Electric, Masdar is also
backed by the city-state of Abu Dhabi, as well as technology partners from the
UK and Spain. The complex is being used for cutting-edge research in: renewable
energy (including dozens of active and passive solar and wind technologies), water
conservation technologies that can distill drinking water from ambient moisture
both indoors (sweat) and outdoors (dew), as well as local urban food production
schemes. In fall 2009, the Masdar Institute of Technology opened, in conjunction with
MIT, where students get degrees in engineering,  material sciences, IT, water and the
environment, all with a relationship to the real world demonstration projects
taking root in the city that in Arabic means “the source.”

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10.   Future
Trend: Mega-growth of Unregulated Asian Cities + Mega Drought

Time
Period: 2009-2030

Between now and 2027 Asian Cities will account for more
than half of the world’s greenhouse gas increases,
according to a study by the Asian Development Bank.
From Mumbai to Beijing, cities will add a projected 1.8 billion people over the next two
decades; they are almost entirely unregulated in their growth, carbon
management and environmental impacts, despite some new siloed attempts to
manage their industries, power production and energy efficiency. The daunting
challenge is that no regulatory structure exists to monitor this collection of Asian mega-cities,
despite the fact that many of these cities has or will have populations of 10-20 million individuals. This megagrowth began
around the beginning of the 00′s, when Asian urban population was at 1.4
billion. Asia is projected to have about 3 billion urbanites by 2030.

Water is the first epic Asian city resource
crisis. The Tibetan Plateau, source of most of the region’s major
sources of fresh water (including the Yangtze, Yellow, Mekong, Ganges,
Irrawaddy and the Indus rivers) has been experiencing a seven percent loss of
glaciers on an annual basis, according to a report released last week (pdf) at the
Copenhagen climate conference. 

Beijing has been hit especially
hard by a ten-year drought (pdf): the city of 17 million has enough water for only 14
million. Beijing has been forced to procure
water from surrounding agricultural regions and rapidly diminishing groundwater, while some cities in India have
completely run out of water during periods of drought over the past decade.

Warren Karlenzig is president of Common
Current
, an internationally active urban sustainability strategy
consultancy. He is
a Fellow at the Post Carbon Institute

 

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Copenhagen and the Imperative for Sustainable Cities in India

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Mumbai flooding after 2006 deluge

Leading up to President Obama welcoming India Prime Minister Manmohan Singh for the first official State Dinner of his presidency at the White House, The Bay Area Council Economic Institute yesterday released its new report, “Global Reach: Emerging Ties Between the San Francisco Bay Area and India.”

At a release event in downtown San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club, a panel addressed why, according to the Institute’s president R. Sean Randolph, “No place else in the nation comes close to the economic connections that the Bay Area has in India.”

The sheer numbers of Indians employed by Bay Area firms in such as Cisco, Visa and Semantec are a testament of India moving from a contractual model (think of the call centers in Slumdog Millionaire) to being a true strategic partner, because of its rich base of domestic and ex-pat engineering, management and venture capital talent.

With a fast-growing population of 200 to 300 million earning “disposable income,” Hewlett-Packard and other Silicon Valley product manufacturers have been fighting for market share throughout the South Asian nation. Economic growth may lift some from the slums, but experts worry about the capacity of India to grow so quickly without detrimental climate and other sustainability impacts.

Like China, it now looks like the cities of India–both existing and new–are on the verge of an unparalleled urban population boom.

Michel St. Pierre, Director of Planning and Urban Design from San Francisco-based architectural firm Gensler, was the sole panelist addressing the topic of
Indian urban sustainability of the five other software, biotech and venture capital firms represented at the event.

“By 2022, there will be a need for up to 500 new cities in India to accommodate the urban growth in the country,” St. Pierre said. “Reduced quality of life could greatly affect the success of the nation’s economy if growth is not planned and executed properly.”

St. Pierre said the biggest challenge is to address sustainability in all aspects, with cities such as Mumbai operating its current systems–including transportation, water, energy and environmental analysis–at full capacity and beyond. Then there is the emerging threat of global climate change, particularly flooding.

“The livibility and sustainability of cities like Mumbai and Delhi are critical to the success of the country,” he opined about the city of 14 million, the largest city proper in the world. St. Pierre quoted Prime Minister Singh: “If Mumbai fails, then India fails.”

St. Pierre compared India’s urban growth to that of China in its scale, yet contrasted it with its neighbor to the north in terms of governance. Because India is a democracy, versus China, which has a planned, centrally controlled economy, India cannot so easily create whole-scale national programs around Eco-Cities, which China is in the beginning stages of trying to roll out.

India’s advantage as a democracy is that it more likely to successfully enact public-private partnerships in such complex endeavors as the densification of its cities and in providing more mixed-use real estate with access to public transportation.

Most of India’s so-called Eco-cities projects have attempted to create more healthy and sanitary conditions in such areas as those in the Kerala state by reducing pollution in rivers and drinking water supplies.

Indian cities have also been global leaders in converting their dirty diesel bus fleets to compressed natural gas (CNG), which emits far less particulates and other deadly air pollutants than diesel or gasoline-powered vehicles. Some fleets are even being switched to dual-fuel supplies of CNG and hydrogen.

But so far, there has been less success in redesigning slum areas or other development to take advantage of new innovations in renewable energy, green building and advanced water-conserving technologies, let alone district flood-resistant planning.

And then there are the masses of people, buildings and infrastructure. Mumbai has only .03 percent open space, one of the lowest rates in the world, according to St. Pierre–compared to an average of 5-7 percent open space in US cities. The country also suffers from constant power outages, chronic water shortages, and systemically contaminated water.

With the advent of corporate-backed city-wide sustainability initiatives, including the “Connected Urban Development” program from Cisco (with its global headquarters for development now in Bangalore) and IBM’s Smarter Cities initiatives, India stands to become a fertile land for bringing software innovations into 21st century applications in planning and management of energy, water and transportation.

HP even has its own nascent “Sustainable Cities/ City 2.0″ initiative, which is less defined at this point, but hinges upon the mother of all data centers as a massive brain behind Smart Grid, telepresence, intelligent buildings and metro transportation systems.

There is so much more to be launched that can harness the deeply educated pool of talent in India and California’s Silicon Valley, particularly in light of climate change.

All of this brings us back to Obama’s meeting with Prime Minister Singh, and the coming of the Copenhagen climate summit, for which one major point of negotiations is the amount of funding available from developed nations for financing greenhouse gas reductions and climate adaptation in developing nations such as India.

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President Obama and Indian Prime Minister Singh at the G-20 summit.

Concluded Genler’s Michel St. Pierre, “India can lead the way worldwide for sustainability by addressing innovation just as it has done in software and all these other industries.”

Let’s hope that the buzz tonight at the State Dinner over the fresh veggies and herbs from Michelle Obama’s White House garden goes beyond the gossip of celebrities and at least touches on issues so critical to the future of India, the United States and the world at large. 

Warren Karlenzig is President of Common Current, an internationally active urban sustainability consultancy in San Anselmo, CA. He is author of How Green is Your Ci
ty? The SustainLane US City Rankings
and a Fellow at the Post Carbon Institute

 

   

 

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Vancouver Strives for the Gold as World’s Greenest City–can it become first Eco City-State?

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Vancouver, Canada’s new mayor Gregor Robinson is making good on his campaign promise to make Vancouver “The Greenest City on the Planet.” 

Forget trying to be Canada’s greenest city as Toronto has aspired to be, or North America’s greenest city as Portland, San Francisco and Chicago have vied for. If it succeeds beyond its plans, the Vancouver region will have the makings of the world’s first modern Eco City-State.

Mayor Robertson announced ambitious plans Tuesday at this week’s Resilient Cities conference.

Whatever the outcome, Vancouver will be transformed by the process in reputation and mindshare. This plan should provide the city of 615,000 with an opening to make significant sustainability improvements to its economic competitiveness, infrastructure and use of resources.

With the 2010 Winter Olympics coming to town next February, Vancouver will be able to use an international media platform that key sponsors such as Coca Cola and General Motors are targeting for launches of new “sustainability” products and messaging. Besides the release of GM’s forthcoming Chevy Volt, I’ve been told that Coca Cola is trying to completely reposition its brand in the face of climate change, bottled water rebellion and anti-soda obesity regulations.

As a result of such marketing, and with Olympic Village plans for operations under the Global Reporting Initiative on sustainability, the 2010 games might make history as the first international event associated with sustainability.

Corn syrupy water and automobiles aside, Vancouver is putting forward some serious plans and goals in its quest. Yesterday, I chatted with Melina Scholefield, Vancouver’s Sustainability Group manager, and learned that the city as part of its Greenest City Plan will:

  • Set up a low-carbon economic development zone to attract private equity investment in the green economy, with the goal of creating 20,000 new jobs.
  • Try to increase its walkability, bikability and public transit ridership to more than 50 percent. The city currently has a rate of about 20 percent combined walking and cycling for commuting, one of the highest such rates in North America. Boston, for example, has a combined walking/cycling commute rate of 16 percent, the highest in the US.
  • Develop its own green building standards, which are stricter and more thorough than existing standards such the US Green Building Council’s LEED rating system or the US EPA’s Energy Star rating system. The goal is to have all construction in Vancouver be carbon neutral by 2020.
  • Reduce the amount of solid waste that goes to landfills or is incinerated by 40 percent.
  • Provide all city residents with easy access to green space, so that by 2020 everyone would be within a five-minute walk of a park, beach or greenway.
  • Reduce the per capita consumption of water by 33 percent.
  • Reduce the carbon footprint of food production by 33 percent.
  • The big one: reduce the ecological footprint of Vancouver by 33 percent. This means reducing the amount of arable land needed to support each citizen from 7 hectares to 5.7 hectares by 2020.

Eventually Vancouver wants to reduce its “four planet” Ecological Footprint down to “one planet.” (Tuesday night, I gave a talk on urban resilience at the conference with the co-founder of the Ecological Footprint, William Rees, a professor at the University of British Columbia: our Post Carbon Institute-sponsored talk will be broadcast on 15 radio stations and available here on an MP3 at the EcoShock radio site.)

Vancouver’s performance-based goals are impressive in that they are tangible and measureable. Having measured the sustainability performance, projects and capabilities of the largest 50 US cities in my book, How Green is Your City? The SustainLane US City Rankings, I am looking forward to seeing how Vancouver will pull off developing transparent and verifiable results.

Already the city claims the lowest greenhouse gas emissions per capita of any city in North America, at just under 5 metric tons, with New York City being at about 7 metric tons and the US average being close to 25 metric tons. Vancouver claims 90 percent use of renewable energy, with much of it in hydropower, though I was unable to verify whether that hydropower is small-scale enough to qualify for accepted renewable energy standards, such as that used by the state of California.

Now comes the real test. How will Vancouver plan, manage, construct and fashion a more sustainable future so it can complement its already world-famous quality of life with new technology jobs and opportunities in urban agriculture and food production?

Vancouver will have to compete with clean tech clusters emerging in California, Boston, Austin and Toledo, Ohio, creating green job growth in renewables, green building and advanced materials, advanced transportation (beyond its already-leading fuel cell industry cluster), and water/ energy efficiency.

A final challenge surfaced yesterday afternoon during a panel discussion at the Resilient Cities conference with Scholefield and other members of the Greenest City Action Team (including Gordon Price, Robert Safrata, and Moura Quayle).

Vancouver’s Greenest City Plan has yet to provide details on the participation of its surrounding metropolitan area, though the leadership of West Vancouver, a suburb of 44,000 appeared to be on board when I discussed the plan with its mayor Pamela Goldsmith-Jones and councillor Trish Panz.

Regional collaboration will be vital to ensuring effective land use and transportation planning, not to mention scaling up regional food and regional energy production, particularly biomass, wind, biofuels and small-scale hydro power.

“We’ll start at the core with the hope that action in the core city will move the outer area along” said Price, Director of the SFU City program, in response to a question about the lack of sign-on from Metro Vancouver, a group of 22 communities in the region.

That strategy might work to kick things off. At some point soon, however, Vancouver will need to more fully enlist the metro area and the Cascadia bioregion to take on an active partnership and even select ownership of Greenest City plan elements. Mayor Robinson did meet with Portland, Oregon mayor Sam Adams, who came to Vancouver this week with a contingent to the Resilient Cities event–the two were said to hit it off well and spent much time together privately.

If Vancouver accomplishes its formidable goals, it would within ten years begin to more closely resembles the Eco City-State concept devised by William Rees.

The city would then be at the center of a regional economy capable of producing most of its own energy, along with a significant amount of its goods
, services and food, while protecting its water, wildlife, biodiversity and cultural resources. And this would be without contributing further to the acceleration of global climate change.

Call it resilience, sustainability, or just getting ready for what’s to come.

Warren Karlenzig is president of Common Current, an international consultancy focused on  urban sustainability strategy and metrics.

 

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Common Current’s Top Ten 2008 Sustainability Stories

Here are the top ten sustainability related stories of 2008 that we have been watching and participating in at Common Current, a global sustainability consultancy. True to sustainability system dynamics, most of these items impact the other items on the list, and they will continue to unfold in 2009 and beyond.


1. Election of Barack Obama


After Barack Obama’s historic November 2008 election, he continued to demonstrate a sophisticated understanding of the risks posed by  global climate change and the nation’s dependency on foreign energy. In addition to making green jobs and clean technologies a major part of a national economic stimulus package and a precondition for many cabinet appointments, Obama’s view of sustainability as an opportunity shows he will take on vexing problems with new solutions.

 

Obama’s statement on “60 Minutes” when asked about his energy priorities with oil going from $147 a barrel to under $60 a barrel was telling: “We go from shock to trance. You know, oil prices go up, gas prices at the pump go up, everybody goes into a flurry of activity. And then the prices go back down and suddenly we act like it’s not important, and we start filling up our SUVs again. And, as a consequence, we never make any progress. It’s part of the addiction, all right. That has to be broken. Now is the time to break it.”

 

Obama’s dipping into the Clinton well to appoint former EPA politcal warhorse Carol Browner as Energy and Climate Czar demonstrates that his new solutions don’t necessarily mean new people will be addressing them.

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Barack Obama with new Energy Secretary Steven Chu, EPA chief Lisa Jackson and “Energy and Climate Czar” Carol Browner (AP photo)

 

One of Obama’s sustainability-related appointments, though, does demonstrate how multi-sector collaboration will reshape the US economy to be more energy efficient and less carbon intensive. Steven Chu as Secretary of Energy is a savvy choice. Chu, a Nobel-prize winning director of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, has piloted economic-development enhancing climate change solutions with the energy industry, the green building sector, venture capital firms and alternative fuel academic researchers. He also supervised the Helios Project, which is trying to bridge the gap between transportation and solar energy technologies.

And to bolster the administration’s science-based approach on policy further, Obama selected Harvard’s John Holdren as Chief Science advisor. Holdren is respected as one of the leading experts on global climate science (he advised Al Gore on An Inconvenient Truth), and is well versed in clean technologies.



2. The 2008 Presidential Campaign

Unlike previous elections where “The Environment” garnered nary a mention, the months leading up to the 2008 election of Barack Obama saw the big-time advent of sustainability topics.

 

Both McCain and Obama supported carbon cap and trading for industry to reduce greenhouse gases. Obama also made a vague campaign pledge of investing $150 billion over 10 years on clean tech and energy efficiency.

 

But the most memorable sustainability campaign moments came in spring when gas prices began to hit their historic high of more than $4 a gallon. McCain’s call for a consumer federal gas tax holiday was met with derision from most including Obama, as it would only make foreign oil dependence worse, not to mention increase carbon emissions. The McCain “gas tax holiday plan,” supported by then-candidate Hillary Clinton, died on the vine during the heat of June.

3. 2008: The Highest Gas and Oil Prices Ever

When oil reached $4-5 a gallon at the pump and more than $145 a barrel in July, a future of energy volatility and potential energy scarcity came into sharper focus. Record numbers of Americans took to public transit, while others reconsidered where and how they could use less gas not only in their cars but in their lives: “Mixed-use” real estate (neighborhoods with shops, jobs and homes) with good public transit were suddenly hot tickets. Meanwhile, people started using web tools such as “WalkScore to judge whether potential jobs and homes were easy walking distances to shopping, schools and entertainment. Offices or homes that were too car-dependent were suddenly out of fashion.

 

4. 2009: The Lowest (Relative) Gas and Oil Prices Ever?

The world economic meltdown of 2008-2009 demonstrates how closely energy supply, particularly oil, greases the gears of commerce–and vice versa. As the stock market and demand plunged, so did oil prices. Oil reached a year low of under $40 a barrel in late December, when OPEC’s announcement of production cuts did little to stop the slide.

The real hand on the throttle of pricing is the economy, as global demand has slowed considerably. When the economy does pick up, scarce supply (or speculation about scarce supply) might again force steep price hikes, as private oil companies and nationally owned oil producers are canceling development plans for refineries and exploration because of the large drop in prices. In the meantime, alternative fuel development will be hurt as this emerging market, when unsubsidized, requires a minimum oil price of about $50 a barrel to be competitive with crude.

 

5. Arctic Ice Cap Melting Accelerates Wildly

The surprising loss noted by scientists in 2008 of the Arctic ice cap and inland Arctic ice is major cause of on-going global environmental, economic and geo-political concern, with the area now up to ten degrees Fahrenheit warmer than it was in the 1980s. The newly open Arctic waters will cause even warmer temperatures in the region and beyond, as water absorbs far more heat from the sun than does ice.

 

Besides releasing the trapped methane (worse than carbon dioxide in terns of greenhouse impacts) from permafrost, melting inland ice is raising global sea levels. Two trillion tons of arctic ice has melted since 2003, according to NASA. Sea ice in the arctic region broke up earlier in the season, opening up a potential permanent shipping lane around the former polar ice cap and precipitating an international scramble for the region’s energy resources.

 

6. Super Storms and Global Climate Change Adaptation

The strength, duration and location of major storms in 2008 led many to speculate how much global climate change is contributing to deadly and economically devastating events.

 

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Burma’s southern coast before and after (May 2008) Typhoon Nargis. A present day image providing a snapshot of what many climate change forecasts project for some coastal areas.


On the Gulf Coast, Hurricane Ike came ashore as a dangerously large hurricane (though only officially Category 2 strength) near the Houston-Galveston area, killing at least 17, and destroying or damaging thousands of homes as well as knocking out refineries, oil platforms and major supply pipelines. Southeastern US cities such as Atlanta and Charlotte, NC were hit with severe price hikes and gas shortages for the month that followed Ike, demonstrating the vulnerability of the nation’s economy to storms that may be intensified by climate change.

 

7. China’s Industry Impact on Olympics, Consumer Products, Global Food and Air

(Thanks to Jared Press on this)

After taking up a “Blue Skies” campaign and relocating or ceasing industrial production and much of Beijing’s downtown traffic, China barely cleared its polluted skies in time for the opening Summer Olympic ceremonies. Air, water and toxic waste pollution have been increasing steadily in the nation as a result of consumer demand in the United States for inexpensive products. Only one tenth of the nation’s sewage is treated, according to a University of Hong Kong scientist. This “ask no questions” mentality has created runaway cancer rates, turned rivers bright green or black, and smudged the atmosphere so much that at times in Beijing airplanes have not been allowed to land.

 

China also by 2008 became the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases. It spews a dangerous blend of particulates, sulfur, mercury and other deadly compounds, as new coal plants are fired up at a rate of two per week. Air pollution on the West Coast of United States and Canada has been recently shown to contain as much as one-third of its air pollutants directly from China.

 

Then there is product contamination from China, which began with lead-tainted toys and jewelry, and spread to exported poisonous toothpaste by 2007. In 2008 the industrial and agricultural by-product melamine, first detected in animal feed for chickens, cattle, and fish has now gone up the food chain into eggs and milk. The tainted baby formula has caused kidney failure and illness in 294,000 Chinese infants and six deaths. Tainted chocolate, chickens and hogs have been found in the US, though the meat was not recalled, so it’s likely that many Americans have been unknowingly exposed to China’s dangerous practices not only in the air that they breathe, but in the food they eat.

 

As for the ballyhooed “Eco-City” of Dongtan that China was said to be developing with Arup Engineering, groundbreaking has not occurred and the permit for development has lapsed.

 

 

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8. Foreclosure Crisis: Recipe for Smart Growth?

 

The foreclosure crisis that started in 2007 when gas prices began to skyrocket and that magnified in 2008, had its beginnings in the areas of the United States that largely lack public transit, walkability and mixed real estate uses. Meanwhile as gas prices rose to record levels, metro areas that had housing and jobs close to good transit and walkable amenities saw their value hold steady. Any plan for preventing future housing sector meltdowns needs to include an analysis of how gas and transportation prices pushed many over the financial edge, despite the plentiful supply of distant housing from job markets that seemed (or seems) affordable with low gas prices.

One smart move in policy in 2008 was California’s Senate Bill 375, the nation’s first law designed to limit sprawl and provide communities and developers incentives to build transit-oriented “infill.”

 

9. US Auto Fleet to go Electric? 

With the survival of the current US auto industry in doubt, whatever rises from the ashes will likely be greener and cleaner than anything Detroit ever thought possible before the 2008 downturn. Leading the “charge” for an electric US fleet is none other than Ford Motor Co. Chairman William Ford III, grandson of Ford founder Henry Ford. Bill Ford met privately with Obama during the campaign and with Obama and his advisors after the election: Ford is reportedly advocating for a mostly consumer electric fleet as a way of restructuring the industry to be competitive with imports while reducing climate change emissions.

 

10. Green Jobs

Through the leadership of Van Jones, president of Green For All, the reality of “Green Collar Jobs” came roaring into the United States during 2008, culminating in the “Green Jobs Act” which could be included in Congress’s 2009 economic stimulus package. The act aims to provide 25,000 jobs in solar panel installation, home and business energy retrofitting and other high-paying jobs for Americans, launching new training centers and education programs in high unemployment areas with disappearing manufacturing jobs. The US Conference of Mayors estimates growth of 4.2 million new “green collar” jobs in the nation over the next 30 years. Welcome news after a sobering year.

 

 

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